How digital’s game-changing effect made marketing better than the product

Nike+ FuelBand: website has more than 6m members
Nike+ FuelBand: website has more than 6m members

My brother’s a sucker for promotional beer glasses. Even though he doesn't particularly like beer, he’ll be first in the queue for a couple of bottles of Rabid Stoat if they’re accompanied by an unusual and decorative beer glass.

This is not the first instance in which the marketing itself has arguably been as attractive as the product being marketed. Ask the mums who bought Lurpak for the promotional butter dish, or the kids who pestered their parents to go to McDonald's for the free toys. Giving away free stuff has been a staple of sales promotion for years. But the value of these additional 'products' is not usually enough for people to pay more in order to get them.

The next level up is where people are prepared to pay more. Media brands are experts at this. They know they can sell additional DVDs (frequently to people who already own the film) through exotic, limited edition packaging concepts. Boxed sets of horror film franchise 'Saw', for example, were snapped up by enthusiasts when offered alongside a replica man trap. Street price? North of $150. If man traps are a bit too weird, you could instead have bought a 30th birthday edition of E.T., packed in a spaceship complete with light, sound and motion effects.

This is packaging so elaborate that the original product has morphed into something else; a new and enhanced product, that is desirable and valuable in its own right. But there's a new, game-changing trend underway, that is taking this thinking to a whole new level.

Thanks to ‘digital’ it is now possible for brand owners to create marketing of a fundamentally different character - marketing that is both more useful, and more valued than the host product. The digital dimension has enabled marketing to achieve something that to date has been hardly possible. It is beginning to supplant the original host products in the affections of the consumer. In short, marketing that is actually becoming the product.

Early step

An early step in this direction was the award winning campaign for Dubai-based pizzeria Red Tomato. The folks at TBWA in Dubai provided Red Tomato’s best customers with a mobile-connected ‘VIP fridge magnet’. A simple push of the button on the magnet would trigger the rapid arrival of your favourite pizza, and remove all of the hassle from doing so, literally at a stroke.

Lambrini's new app, Bodyguard, enables you to locate useful transport information whilst off your face on cheap plonk

Lambrini, the drink of choice for Essex hen parties, has unveiled a new app called Bodyguard. This enables you to locate useful transport information whilst off your face on cheap plonk, and it can actually get you home, in a taxi. It’s properly useful. It may possibly turn out to be more highly valued by Lambrini customers than the original product.

But the game-changing examples begin with the likes of the Nike+ FuelBand, created in partnership with R/GA. This amazing device turns you into a sort of human Formula 1 car, wired up to telemetry. The Nike+ website has over 6m members, which would be inconceivable for a brand that was still merely flogging footwear.

British Gas, a brand with a reputation so poor it makes G4S look good, has decided to try to woo Generation Y. It has wisely chosen a new name, ‘ME’ (which stands for Mobile Energy) for a new service targeting students, and the group that used to be called Yuppies, living in flat shares.

Customers’ relationships with ME will be conducted via an app, from using it to switch in the first place, through to divvying up the bill between themselves and their flatmates. Through the app, they can do all sorts of things. They can find out in advance what their next bill is likely to be, enter meter readings, and indeed turn the phone into a torch in order to read the meter (well done to the agency responsible, Rufus Leonard).

The interesting aspect is that people who buy into ME are not simply buying energy. We have to ask what the ‘product’ actually is in this case. Is it the gas? Or are people really buying the sophisticated, connected service?

Perfect sense

It makes perfect sense for a utilities business to have discovered the value of utility. Digital tools just make it easier for them to fulfil their core function. But thanks to digital, brands of all kinds can now make themselves more useful, and potentially more valuable to their customers.

We’ve had ‘productised’ services for years; bundled up packages of value that people can buy off the peg. What digital is doing is bringing in a new era of – excuse the jargon - ‘servicised’ product marketing.

A 'servicised' car might sell on an agenda worlds away from the old paradigm of 0-60 acceleration, top speed and fuel consumption

Take the car. A ‘servicised’ car might sell on an agenda worlds away from the old paradigm of 0-60 acceleration, top speed and fuel consumption. It might already know where you’re going before you get in, and have planned a route according to whether you’re in a hurry or want to take in the scenery. It could book itself into your preferred garage for a service and MOT, even arranging for itself to be collected and returned by a human being. It will play your choice of music during your trip, and if it senses you are getting stressed at any point it will adjust the playlist, and suggest a nearby café where you could stop for a break.

One or two people have told me this sounds uncomfortably close to the experience of being married. And anyway, who wants a relationship with a car that’s a patronising, interfering know it all? I simply say it’s your choice, and like it or not, servicised products are on the way. Some may indeed turn out to be so annoying that divorce is the only solution. But others won’t. And many of you will find yourselves blissfully happy with your new partners.

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